“ASAKO I & II”
(Not rated, 1:59)
The bewitching and sometimes unsettling Japanese romantic drama “Asako I & II” begins in the early 2000s. Outside an Osaka art gallery that’s hosting an exhibition by the photographer Shigeo Gocho, pretty and shy Asako (Erika Karata) is approached by Baku (Masahiro Higashide), a strikingly handsome and brash guy with goofily floppy hair.
He’s bad news and even he knows it. He DJs. He starts fights with guys who try to dance with Asako. He goes out for pastries and doesn’t come back until the next day. One of his exits seems to contain a phantom whisper of Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” but that’s not the affair’s turning point. His no-return disappearance is relayed in the movie’s sole use of narration, by Asako herself.
A couple of years later, Asako is working in a coffee shop in Tokyo, supplying carafes of the brew to a sake-marketing firm next door. Ryohei, an awkward young salaryman there, is Baku’s double — so exact as to be played by the same actor, in a quietly stunning dual performance. He’s Baku’s total opposite, personality-wise: almost recessively shy and possibly a bit dim.
Both parties are resistant to romance, until Ryohei falls hard. This quickly repels the wary Asako, who hasn’t told Ryohei about Baku. A galvanic urban event finally brings them together. The couple fall into a domesticity that several years on seems to be splitting the difference between contentment and complacency. At which point Baku makes his presence felt again, when a friend of Asako points out the old boyfriend’s portrait on a billboard.
The film’s director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who wrote the screenplay with Sachiko Tanaka, makes features about young people in contemporary Japan that vary wildly in scale. This movie is a fat-free two hours, while his last feature, “Happy Hour,” was a Rivette-evoking five-plus. “Asako” proceeds from a premise that flirts with the mystic, but Hamaguchi executes it with elegantly rendered realism. (It is adapted from a 2010 novel by Tomoka Shibasaki.) The result is a picture that is simultaneously engaging and disconcerting.
There’s a scene in which Ryohei drags his co-worker Kushihashi (Koji Seto) to a home-cooking double date at the apartment Asako shares with Maya (Rio Yamashita), a fledgling television actress. It’s bad enough that Kushihashi has already expressed a distaste for the meal Asako is preparing; he also lays into Maya for what he considers her stiff, provincial reading of Chekhov, based on a clip from a televised production she shows the men at Asako’s request. The scene presents several potential exit ramps at which Hamaguchi could cut, but he barrels through the discomfort to brake the action at a surprising resolution. And he stages and shoots within the cramped apartment setting with superb control of the dramatic stresses he wants to put across.
This proficiency serves the movie well, especially in its double climax, which purposely tests both credulity and whatever affinity the viewer may have had for its title character up to that point. Asako’s vulnerability concerning Baku somersaults into a moment of determined abandon. It’s breathtaking and appalling. But, the movie will leave you asking, is it actually appalling, or only appalling within the conventional wisdom of romantic drama? The provocation is apt to haunt you for some time after the lights go up.